Performing sexuality

The 1960s is popularly described as a decade of sexual liberation – although quite how far that liberation went, and who benefited from it, remain matters of considerable debate. The sexual politics of the counter-culture seemed to permit a form of ‘free love’, but it was one that largely privileged men at the expense of women; and in reality, the hippies were more conservative in terms of gender roles, and indeed more narrowly heterosexual, than they sometimes tended to profess. Yet if women’s liberation – or second-wave feminism – only began to gather momentum in the early 1970s, gay liberation (if not the name itself) arguably pre-dated it. As Dominic Sandbrook describes, there were major shifts in public attitudes towards homosexuality during the early 1960s, even though changes in the law were quite slow to arrive. It took ten years from the publication of the Wolfenden Report to the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, which finally legalized homosexuality – albeit only among ‘consenting adults’ over the age of 21, and not (at first) in Scotland or Northern Ireland. The first Gay Pride march took place in London in 1972, just as glam was breaking into the pop charts, although homosexuality was still a long way from mainstream acceptability.

On one level, glam rock would seem to present a fundamental challenge – indeed, an outrageous affront – to traditional notions of masculinity, and indeed to heterosexuality itself. It might be seen as a popular celebration of a newly emerging ‘gay’ identity, or at least a manifestation of a form of bisexuality or sexual fluidity that went well beyond the predominant heterosexuality of the hippies. However, we need to beware of making easy claims here.

One striking manifestation of such claims can be found in Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’s 1998 movie set in the glam era. Through an awkward mix of quasi-documentary and melodrama, the film tells the story of a fictional pop star, Brian Slade, who is clearly based on David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase. Ten years after Slade’s disappearance, following a faked assassination, a British journalist, Arthur Stuart, is sent by his American employer to investigate what happened to him. In parallel with Slade’s rise to fame, we see Stuart’s own narrative of his ‘coming out’ as a gay teenager: in one notable scene, he points at the TV, which is screening one of Slade’s performances, and shouts at his conservative, homophobic parents, ‘that’s me! that’s me!’ Velvet Goldmine is thinly-veiled fiction, but it takes some striking liberties with history – perhaps most implausibly in the central romance between Slade/Bowie and an American star, Curt Wild, who is based on Iggy Pop. Haynes clearly identifies the elements of artifice and dishonesty in glam, but this sits awkwardly with the more sincere elements of gay romance. The portentous lines delivered by Slade and his acolytes are often clumsy and laughable; and the film has been aptly described by Empire magazine as ‘the most derided British music movie of all time’.

My point here is that it would be a mistake to celebrate glam rock – as Haynes implicitly does – as some kind of popular cultural equivalent of gay liberation. No glam performers were openly gay, and only David Bowie claimed to be bisexual. Androgyny in appearance is not necessarily an indicator of sexual ambiguity, or indeed of any inherent truth about sexuality. And in any case, we might well want to question the kind of ‘liberation’ that is offered by men dressing up in a kind of ridiculous, excessive parody of traditional femininity.

Androgyny in male fashion is by no means a new phenomenon; and of course there is a parallel history of female androgyny. Upper-class European male dress of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was distinctly ‘effeminate’, for example: think of the enormous powdered wigs. The period immediately before the rise of glam saw a resurgence of male androgyny, which was also manifested in the styles of music performers, most notably Mick Jagger. As the fashion historian Georgina Gregory has described, there were significant shifts in male clothing styles in the late 1950s and early 1960s, not only among subcultural groups like the mods but also in mainstream menswear. An interest in fashion was, at least for some, no longer regarded as effeminate: male fashions became feminized, and new ‘unisex’ clothing styles (for both men and women) began to emerge. The long hair of male hippies was just one manifestation of this, but the mods, who preceded them, were much more intensely interested in fashion (both Marc Bolan and David Bowie had been mods in the early 1960s). Yet while such shifts might to some extent question gender distinctions, they do not necessarily imply any questioning of masculine sexuality.

As I’ve noted, glam performers were almost exclusively male, perhaps to an even greater extent than in other musical genres. The only notable female performer, Suzi Quatro, was aggressively masculine, and deployed her bass guitar in the style of old-fashioned ‘cock rock’. To say the least, this does not suggest that a significant revolution in gender roles in the music industry was under way. Indeed, some glam performers, such as Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, were overtly misogynistic and anti-feminist: several of the band’s album covers were blatantly sexist, albeit with a superficial gloss of retro irony.

Aside from David Bowie, who publicly proclaimed his bisexuality in a press interview in 1972, no other glam performers claimed to be anything other than heterosexual. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they were: indeed, it’s notable that the sexuality of both Freddie Mercury (of Queen) and Elton John – two performers who were associated with the later stages of glam – was kept hidden until much later (and in Mercury’s case, until after his death). In Bowie’s case, there is no reason to doubt his claim, but it seems to have been delivered with a kind of archness – he had ‘a secret smile at the corners of his mouth’, the interviewer, Mick Watts, recalled – as though playfully and knowingly inciting publicity. While Bowie may indeed have empowered young people who were growing up gay – as Velvet Goldmine suggests – it is striking that no other glam performers followed his lead. Indeed, some gay men at the time regarded Bowie as a kind of ‘sexual tourist’, and criticized his unwillingness to publicly support gay liberation – although in a sense, it was the deliberate ambiguity, the refusal to be defined, or what Simon Reynolds calls ‘the miasma of sexual undecidability’, that was largely the point.


Gay or camp or queer or what?

Even if the sexuality of the performers was not specifically ‘gay’, it could be argued that glam performance was nevertheless ‘camp’, and possibly ‘queer’. The term ‘camp’ derives from the French ‘camper’ – meaning to pose, or strike an attitude. However, it does at least imply a connotation of sexuality: its original definition (from the 1909 Oxford English Dictionary) clearly identifies a link to homosexuality and ‘effeminacy’. In popular usage, ‘camp’ often translates to ‘gay’, although the relationship between them is not unproblematic.

The term ‘camp’ had been around for several decades, but it was an essay by the US critic Susan Sontag published in 1964 that famously pulled it into the mainstream of critical debate. According to Sontag, camp is not necessarily to do with homosexuality, although there may be an affinity or an overlap between them: some gay people may exhibit camp tastes, but not all; and an enjoyment of camp is not necessarily an indication of homosexuality. Rather, Sontag argues, camp is a more general sensibility, a way of relating to particular art forms, and of seeing the world as ‘an aesthetic phenomenon’. Camp reflects a love of the outlandish, the outrageous and the extravagant; it converts the serious into the frivolous; it revels in artifice and stylization, and in vulgarity and kitsch; it is about a love of ‘the exaggerated, the “off”, of things-being-what-they-are-not’. According to Sontag, camp ‘sees everything in quotation marks’: it is about playing a role, about living life as theatre, or about ‘the theatricalization of experience’. It blurs the distinctions between high culture and popular culture, and between good taste and bad: it allows trash to become a suitable object for refined cultural contemplation. Once again, it’s hard to imagine the fearsomely intellectual Susan Sontag bopping around to the likes of Slade and Gary Glitter, but glam would seem to tick most of her boxes.

Indeed, on this account, the overlap between camp and postmodernism is also quite obvious. Significantly, however, Sontag distinguishes between ‘pure camp’, which is ‘dead serious’, and a kind of knowing or self-conscious camp, which is much less innocent: ‘camp which knows itself to be camp,’ she argues, ‘is much less satisfying’. True camp, it seems, has to be sincere and unintentional, even if the audience chooses to read it ironically. It is not cynical or detached, but identifies with what it is enjoying. As with postmodernism, the crucial issue here is to do with intention: is camp a stance adopted by the producer of a cultural text, or is it something the audience can read into it? Is irony or knowingness a quality that resides in the product, or in the mind of the beholder, or both?

More recent work on camp has worried away at the questions Sontag raises. Her distinction between knowing and innocent, her implicit value judgments, and her argument that camp is essentially apolitical and frivolous, have all generated considerable debate. However, the key issue for my argument here is to do with the sexual politics of camp. As I’ve suggested, Sontag seems to deny that sexuality has anything much to do with camp. By contrast, more recent critics have argued that camp can be a powerful means of mocking and subverting established gender and sexual categories, and thereby challenging ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ or ‘hetero-normativity’.

The other term that is most often applied here is ‘queer’. This term was certainly in use at the time of glam, but only as a term of abuse for homosexuals. However, it has since been reclaimed, not so much to describe a particular group of people, but more as a way of defining a critical strategy in sexual politics. ‘Queering’ is about exposing the fact that gender is a performance, and thereby dramatizing the inherent instabilities and inconsistencies of gender identities. Again, the application to glam is fairly obvious. The critic Philip Auslander, for example, argues that the performance styles of glam reflected a more general troubling or disruption of apparently settled sexual identities, rather than a manifestation or celebration of homosexuality more specifically. By presenting gender as a performance, or an artificial construction, he argues, glam not only challenged the hetero-normativity of rock but also the idea of a fixed, foundational sexual identity. In glam performance, gender is destabilized and fluid: gender identities are multiplied and subject to change, and are no longer an unvarying expression of some essential inner self. According to Auslander, this queerness is apparent not only in the elements of transvestitism, but also in the high-pitched singing styles and affected diction of male stars like Bolan and Brian Ferry.

As I’ve argued, it’s easy to read some elements of ‘high glam’ – some of the work of Bowie or Roxy Music, for example – as ironic, and to assume that this was how they were intended to be understood. However, this is rather more difficult with the ‘low glam’ of Gary Glitter or Slade, for example, or especially with Marc Bolan. In Susan Sontag’s terms, the latter might actually count as ‘pure’ camp – and even as ‘innocent’ – while Bowie et al. might be considered too smart and self-aware for their own good. There is also a danger when we encounter this kind of material retrospectively: when I watch an archive video of The Sweet performing on Top of the Pops, it seems to me entirely ludicrous and over the top – although I’m not sure if I would have seen it in that way at the time.

The political dimensions of all this remain a matter of considerable debate. ‘Camp’ occupies an ambivalent place within gay identity politics: it can be seen as a means of assimilation, and as a merely consumerist stance, as much as a means of subversion. One could well argue that the elements of transvestitism in glam performance merely parodied sexual norms, rather than fundamentally critiquing or challenging them, let alone offering alternatives. Indeed, such exaggerated parody might well be seen to reinforce existing gender binaries, particularly when performed by almost exclusively male artists.

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